Scotland and the West Lothian question: federation is still the only answer

Tam Dalyell, then MP for West Lothian, posed what has become known as the West Lothian Question: why should MPs representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster be allowed to vote on legislation which affects England but not their own constituents, because the subject of the legislation — education, health, etc. — has been devolved to the Scottish parliament?   Today's (25 June 06) Sunday Times graciously allows me to ride one of my six or seven hobby-horses, all familiar to regular readers of Ephems:

The Sunday Times      June 25, 2006

Letters to the Editor: Scots belong in a federal UK

MICHAEL PORTILLO is, for once, resoundingly wrong (The Scottish drift that is unnerving Brown, Comment, last week ).  His answer to the West Lothian question — Scottish independence — would make the current anomaly infinitely worse by dismembering our country, without solving the underlying problem. This arises from our doomed attempt to run the Westminster parliament with two incompatible functions: both a federal legislature for the whole of the UK, but with limits on its powers to deal with matters devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: and simultaneously a legislature for England dealing with everything.

With devolution we have sleepwalked halfway into a federal constitution. The solution is to go all the way: a parliament for England, a written constitution defining the respective powers of Westminster and the regions, and a federal Westminster parliament exercising those powers not devolved to the regions — mainly foreign affairs and defence — and those shared with them.

The Portillo proposal to destroy the United Kingdom by hiving off Scotland would be like healing a stiff leg by amputating it: the Scots are essential to our sense of nationhood (I am not even half Scottish).

Sir Brian Barder
London SW18

Michael Portillo may or may not have had half a tongue in his cheek in recommending the dismissal of Scotland from the Union as a pretty drastic remedy for a non-life-threatening malady — especially as it would leave unresolved the identical problem in respect of Wales and (if devolution is ever resurrected in that unruly province) Northern Ireland. Portillo, though, is not the only politician proposing daft solutions to a relatively straightforward problem.  Lord Baker, former Tory minister, is tabling a Bill to empower the Speaker of the House of Commons to declare draft legislation dealing only or predominantly with a devolved subject, and therefore applicable only to England, to be a special England-only measure, on which MPs representing Scottish (and presumably Welsh and in future Northern Irish) seats would not be allowed to vote.  The Tories generally are cautiously toying with some similar arrangement, entranced, no doubt, by the thought that an English Grand Committee of MPs for English constituencies would have a Tory majority.  Such a nostrum would be fairly obviously unworkable.  Some aspects of England-only Bills would generally affect Scotland and the other devolved regions to a greater or lesser extent.  It would create a category of second-class MPs, entitled to vote on some measures but not others.  Would they be allowed to speak on the special Bills even though unable to vote on them?  Could a Scottish MP be appointed as minister for a devolved subject?  Could we have a prime minister elected by a Scottish electorate (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, to take but one example)  with overall responsibility for all government policy but prohibited from voting on a wide range of his own ministry's proposed laws, and unable to rely on a majority of exclusively English MPs to support them? 

Of course a truly federal solution such as I propose would hold out the prospect of a parliament and government for England with a Conservative majority, alongside a federal parliament and government of the whole United Kingdom with a Labour majority.  But why not?  It happens all the time in the US, Australia, Germany, Canada and in every other democratic federation.  The challenge of winning a majority in an English parliament could have a powerfully rejuvenating effect on the Labour Party under a new leader.

Nor is this simply a technical, dry-as-dust, constitution-happy, nerdish issue.  It goes to the heart of the need to escape from the paranoid over-centralism that seems to grip our national politicians as soon as they kiss hands on appointment as ministers.  The full-hearted federal solution that I propose would blow away with derision such aberrations as the current debate at Westminster on how to impose new rules and regulations on local authorities as regards car parking and traffic meter attendants.  No longer would MPs sitting far from the Shetlands or Derry or Newcastle be trying to lay down the law on which areas of pubs and clubs should or should not be made smoke-free.  These all ought to be matters for local decision by locally elected legislatures and regional ministers accountable to (and able to be influenced by) their local communities. 

It's not a valid objection to the federal solution that there's at present 'no demand' for an English parliament (or several of them).  Government should be about leadership, not about obediance to the editor of the News of the World.  An English parliament and government with real powers over most of the matters that touch people's daily lives would soon attract interest and support.  If politicans of all parties had the guts and gumption to declare with passion the manifest benefits of completing our half-baked federation, incidentally solving at a stroke the otherwise insoluble West Lothian question, there would soon enough be a positive response.  No other 'solution' has been offered that won't create more problems than it solves.  Time to grow out of our national  f-word phobia!


6 Responses

  1. Baralbion says:

    And once we all got used to that, the idea of a federal Europe might not look as threatening. There is an excellent model for both in that very successful conglomeration, the Helvetic Confederation.

    Brian adds:  I very much agree with that.  The pressing need is to bring decision-making on matters that impact most on people's everyday lives much closer to local communities, and to prise the claws of the centralists off the subjects that ought to be settled locally, not nationally.  Having MPs at Westminster deciding whether smoking is to be allowed in working men's clubs in Accrington is the height of indefensible folly.  Members of regional parliaments and governments will be far more responsive to local opinion than MPs and ministers at Westminster.  It will mean many variations in practices and standards as between different parts of the UK, and the gutter press will scream and shout about the post-code lottery:  ignore them.  We preach subsidiarity in the EU (the principle of maximum devolution to local level of policy-making and decision-making) but we seem inexplicably resistant to it at home.  We should certainly study the Swiss, as you rightly suggest: but also the Americans, the Germans, the Australians, the Canadians…  just not, please, the French.

  2. Bondwoman says:

    I’m all for increasing federalisation in the UK, but you need to discuss the all important fiscal questions, you need to question whether or not an English parliament would be elected by proportional representation, as is the case in the current devolved parliaments/assemblies, and you need to deal with the issue of whether or not a large English parliament would be any more responsive to regional difference than is the UK Parliament.

  3. Brian says:

    Bondwoman is obviously right:   the issues listed in her comment would all need to be addressed and resolved, not by me (if 'you' means 'me'?), nor in some cases by the existing semi-unitary parliament at Westminster, but by the new English parliament or parliaments.  Fiscal policy and resource distribution would need to be settled, probably, by a conference of the federal prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer with all the regional finance ministers and premiers, its decisions to be ratified by the federal and all the regional parliaments.  It would be up to the English parliament[s], as indeed for all the regional parliaments, to decide on the electoral system to be used for elections to it or them.  Whether there should be one regional parliament and government for England or several would need to be decided as part of the general initial federal settlement which would certainly need to be approved by national referendums. 

    One essential element in the overall settlement, in my view, is that the federal Senate should be elected on a different system from the House of Commons, on a different electoral cycle and longer tenure, with equal representation for each of the regions (as a necessary protection for the smaller regions from being constantly outvoted by the larger).  There are plenty of very good models in other comparable federal democracies and we would need to abandon our traditionally arrogant presumption that there is nothing we can ever learn from other countries' experience.

    A Royal Commission would be needed to draw up the initial blueprint, taking evidence from all interested parties, commissioning expert papers on the numerous issues to be settled, and submitting its recommendations to all the existing UK parliaments and thence to a referendum (or series of referendums).  It would take five or six years in all but ought not to need any more than that, if the all-party will to make the change existed and if the party leaderships could pluck up the courage to go out and campaign for it.  It's easy to list the obstacles, but other countries have overcome them and it would be sad and insulting to suggest that Britain is uniquely incapable of doing so too.  An essential preliminary is a wide-ranging public debate to begin to get politicians and the media to recognise that there's a serious problem (general disillusionment with and disengagement from national politics, not just the West Lothian question) and that some radical thinking is required in order to deal with it.


  4. Bondwoman says:

    It would be odd of the system of fiscal federalism for the UK were decided by the English parliament. Surely mean that it should be decided by the UK, and in effect by the voters of the UK, who should (in solidarity with each other) bear responsibility as tax payers for funding the continued existence of the union in a way which recognises regional differences. Furthermore, if the English parliament were to decide upon the system of election, this would be different to Scotland. S1(3) of the Scotland Act provides " Members of the Parliament for each region shall be returned at a general election under the additional member system of proportional representation provided for in this Part and vacancies among such members shall be filled in accordance with this Part." Why should the situation be different for England?

    Brian replies:  I have never suggested that the fiscal arrangements could or should be made by the English parliament.  Indeed I said the opposite:

    Fiscal policy and resource distribution would need to be settled, probably, by a conference of the federal prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer with all the regional finance ministers and premiers, its decisions to be ratified by the federal and all the regional parliaments.

    The Scotland Act's provision for the electoral system to be used for elections to the Scottish parliament reproduced what had been agreed at the all-party Convention preceding Scottish devolution and thus reflected Scottish public opinion.  There is no reason why other regions should be compelled to follow suit and have the same system as Scotland.   Each would need to follow a similar procedure, such as an all-party Convention or conference, to determine the initial arrangements.  Thereafter each region would be free to change its own electoral system in whatever way it wanted.  The Scotland Act would in any case be replaced by the new federal constitution, with transitional arrangements from one to the other.

    But this is all very detailed stuff.  The broad principles need to be agreed before anyone starts debating the small print.  We're a long way from that at the moment. 

  5. Toque says:

    Very well said Brian, and extremely heartening to read more and more people expressing the same views.

    Bondwoman is correct, the Barnett Formula/block grant needs to be scrapped and replaced with a ‘fiscal federalism’.  At the moment the Scots do have a legitimate greivance in that Westminster sets their spending levels.  Let’s not forget though that the Barnett Formula is tipped in their favour, and they have tax-raising powers.

    Increasingly the argument that Scots have a ‘right’ to overturn English democracy because Westminster holds the purse strings is being used by those that are opposed to an English parliament.  It is a measure of their desperation – pure obfuscation – the logical argument for fair representation and constitutional parity having defeated them.

    We can work out matters fiscal as a federation of nations after the fact, or as part of a UK constitutional convention, but it should not be used to delay proper and fair representation for England – by that way we will only build resentment.

  6. Brian says:

    This comment comes, with his agreement, from old friend Robin Fairlie, a card-carrying Scot and Londoner, who writes:

    I read with interest your piece on the West Lothian question. Of course, the question only has real significance when the party holding a majority at Westminster is also in a minority among English constituencies – which is why it has been possible cheerfully and irresponsibly to ignore it at the time of, and in the years since devolution, but unlikely to be possible after the next election.

    I agree that Portillo’s answer is unacceptable – including, so far as can be seen, to a majority of Scots. I also agree that Baker’s “solution” is not only unacceptable but mad.

    I don’t agree with your federal solution, for exactly the same reason that I never approved of devolution in the first place – the last thing that any of us needs is yet another tier of greasy politicians trying to get their snouts in the trough – and the second-last thing we need is another tier of civil servants with index-linked pensions and jobs for life. (You even hint at the abhorrent possibility of a multiplicity of English “parliaments” – or talking shops – God help us all.)

    The only real solution is to admit that Tam [Dalyell, former MP for West Lothian, who originally raised and defined the West Lothian Question] was (for once) right, that the whole devolution thing was the wrong answer to the wrong question in the first place, and to abolish it. The Welsh Assembly is a sick joke, and the Scottish parliament, ever since Donald Dewar’s death, has been populated solely by third-rate rejects (apart from the occasional appearance of Alex Salmond, who clearly regards all politics as a bit of a joke invented for his private entertainment – quite a sane attitude really).  Since Scots are running the Westminster government – not to mention the BBC, – they can scarcely be upset at the loss of a mere parliament in Edinburgh.

    Northern Ireland is sui generis, and it’s pointless to try to find a solution that will embrace that can of worms as well. Aspects of the West Lothian question, in an Irish context, have been inherent in British politics ever since Gladstone; hopefully the number of Irish MPs at Westminster will not frequently be sufficient to cause the kind of situation in which they can blackmail governments.

    This measure should be accompanied by a serious attempt to return real power and a real sense of accountability to local government – but I needn’t go on about this, since I imagine it’s not a matter of contention between intelligent people – only between politicians. 

    I think the bit about federations is liable to become a semantic dispute. We already have something that used to be called local government; there are only two things wrong with it: successive governments, starting with T. Heath’s, have made an unbelievable organisational  muddle of it (especially in Scotland); secondly it has been landed with a whole series of unnecessarily prescriptive duties, while being deprived of any power to respond to local needs. If a sensible patchwork of local government, reasonably close to its electorate, with adequate powers to carry a range of broadly-drawn functions – if that constitutes a federation, then yes, I’m in favour. But being an old-fashioned sort of chap, I just call it local government. And it doesn’t include fancy parliaments, assemblies and such.

    As to the description of me as a card-carrying Scot, I ought to mention that in that capacity I am outraged by the fact that the referendum on a Scottish Parliament excluded from voting the vast number of Scots resident for the time being outwith Scotland, all of whom (except for the egregious Sean Connery, who should stick to acting which he is reasonably good at) would have voted NO, while allowing the vote to numbers of Sassenachs on temporary secondment north of the Border, who probably all voted Yes in an attempt to make trouble.


    Brian adds:  I agree that a patchwork of local government can’t properly or meaningfully be described as a federation, one of whose distinguishing features is that the powers of the highest level (i.e. ‘federal’) legislature and its executive are limited under an entrenched written constitution to (a) those subjects not allotted to the regions, and (b) those subjects shared with the regions.  Federation thus entails formally giving up the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty in the sense of pretending that the powers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords can’t be limited, a principle already widely breached by both international legal commitments and other areas of international law, and by devolution (parliament could in theory repeal the devolution legislation, although, pace Robin’s prescription above, in practice it can’t, or at any rate could do so only with such dire consequences for the Union that it is inconceivable in present and any foreseeable circumstances).